Cover cropping should be more than just an afterthought and is an increasingly important part of the armoury for potato growers – that’s according to Donald Paterson, agronomist at independent farmer-owned co-operative, Scottish Agronomy.

Research and experience suggest that, done well, cover crops protect, improve and augment soil between cash crops, but does require a different mindset as it is function – not yield – that is key to successfully using them, he said.

“Evidence shows that cover crops, particularly when grown for a number of successive years across rotations, can result in improvements in soil physical, chemical and biological properties which benefits yield and quality, but you do need to focus on the full rotational and long-term benefits over short-term financial gain.

“Sowing cover crops usually involves additional costs and workload for the grower, and the financial benefits can take several cropping iterations to be realised. This can be frustrating to implement and estimates suggest that few potato rotations currently include cover crops in the UK. It requires a longer-term outlook, and those who have made a success of cover crops have found ways to overcome the barriers and effectively integrate them into their cropping systems. A ‘whole system’ approach puts the priority on the success of cover crops by focusing on multiple aspects of management.

“Any time soil is bare, there is potential for cover cropping but to work properly, it needs planning for maximum effect. Before you put the first plant in, you need to define the objectives and purpose of sowing the cover crops. This will guide what cover crop you sow and if it will bring the benefits you need,” he pointed out.

“Is it to reduce soil erosion or mitigate water pollution and flooding? Is it about soil structure, nutrient recycling, disease or pest management? Or providing habitat and wildlife benefits? You need to decide if it is beneficial to replace a cash crop or to force cover crops between harvest and spring sowing.”

The key to overall success is a proper seed mix for individual soils and timing to facilitate cover crops to grow for as long as possible to reap the greatest benefit.

“Growers should create a management plan that takes a flexible approach, start small and repeat, building on previous achievements.”

There is an increasing social responsibility for growers to look after their soils, apparent in the transition to greening payments, he said.

“It is not a binary choice. There is a win-win for all and, post-2024, there may be opportunity to offset growing cover crops costs through agri-environment scheme participation."